For businesses, it's a brave new world

Amid COVID-19 shutdown, entrepreneurs scramble

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By Bob Uphues

Editor

With 24 hours left before he would be forced to shut down his flower shop, Christopher Mark Fine Flowers and Gifts in downtown Brookfield, shop owner Chris Borzym posted a plea on Facebook.

He had a shop full of fresh flowers that would otherwise wilt during the state-mandated closure of non-essential businesses to limit the spread of COVID-19. The shop would be open until 3 p.m. on March 21. How about buying out the stock?

Two people were waiting outside the door of the shop at 3742 Grand Blvd. when he opened the next day. They'd be the first of a parade of customers, some of them first-timers who simply wanted to support the business, that morning.

The inventory of flowers – about $1,000 worth – was sold out by noon.

"I'm extremely humbled by it," said Borzym on Saturday afternoon. "As crazy as it all is, it's amazing how people are coming together. This spirit is really great to see in times like this."

Business owners throughout the area are still grappling with the new reality of a potentially weeks-long shutdown. Some, like pharmacies, banks, grocery stores and, you better believe it, liquor stores, have been deemed essential and remain open to the public. Others are trying to maintain contact with their customers virtually.

Galloping Ghost Arcade in Brookfield, one of the village's most popular destinations, closed its doors on March 18. Since then, owner Doc Mack has done a handful of Facebook Live sessions from the arcade, including the weekly Monday Mystery Game unveiling – game 760 for the arcade.

 

Restaurants react

While restaurants are allowed to remain open it is only for carryout and delivery. Many others decided to close entirely until further notice. On March 17, the day the restaurant dining room shutdown order went into effect, two Brookfield establishments decided to remain open for one more day to sell perishable inventory.

Little Owl Social Pub on Grand Boulevard offered curbside food pickup all day, allowing them to clear out all but three orders of chicken wings before closing their doors until further notice.

"The community support was great," said co-owner Loukia Giafis. "A lot of customers also left a lot for a tip for staff."

Giafis said they may do another takeout day, but the brother-sister operation is trying to figure out what the future looks like. She said they are contemplating a small business loan, but are grateful that the state has allowed delaying sales tax payments for two months. That will help with immediate cash flow.

"Our landlord is working with us, too," Giafis said. "We're just waiting for any kind of relief efforts that can be sent our way."

After allowing employees to stock up on food from the restaurant's walk-in cooler, Dan and Brenna Velcich, owners of Burger Antics on Grand Boulevard in Brookfield, opened the doors from noon to 2 p.m. on March 17 to sell what remained of their house-made sauces – ketchup, mayo, Buffalo sauce, Dijon, ranch dressing.

"We haven't sold them like this before, but under these extreme circumstances it's better to give them customers something to hold them over," Dan Velcich said.

Velcich also created a GoFundMe campaign asking customers on the restaurant's Facebook page to help support his temporarily out-of-work employees. A week into the fundraiser, it had raised almost $1,600.

The fundraiser was one of a handful created by folks associated with local establishments. Others collecting money to benefit employees include 34 East Lounge in Riverside and Brixie's Saloon in Brookfield.

After going back and forth on whether to continue offering takeout service after a couple of trying days on March 17 and 18, Mary's Morning Mix-Up was back in the takeout business over the weekend and into the new week.

"It's so scary," Vasquez said Friday evening before deciding to push on with the takeout service. "For the first time in my life, I don't know what I'm going to do with my business, and I can't give employees an exact answer."

A Facebook post on Monday announced the restaurant would be open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.

"Somehow, some way, we'll get through this," Vasquez said.

In downtown Riverside, while La Barra's management decided to close the doors for now, La Estancia Mexican restaurant and The Chew Chew remain open for pickup.

Scott Zimmer, who has guided The Chew Chew through two decades that included recessions and the loss of his original location, is providing daily takeout and curbside service, including a menu of takeout specials.

His customers have responded.

"It's been wonderful," said Zimmer, whose children provided him with large stuffed animals to occupy the chairs at window-side dining tables. "All these customers knowing the situation we're in, they've been really supporting us."

 

Banks respond differently

Local banks, which are businesses deemed essential, have responded to the COVID-19 emergency in various ways.

Wintrust, which owns Riverside Bank on East Burlington Street in downtown Riverside, closed the Riverside branch. Other Wintrust branches remain open, but are only offering drive-thru service. The Riverside location does not have a drive-thru.

First American Bank in downtown Riverside is also open only for drive-thru service, but at First National Bank of Brookfield, customers can still do business in-person. But, you have to make an appointment and have someone let you in the building.

"Honestly, I think there's a lot of fear and uncertainty out there, and we want to take as much out of that as we can from a banking perspective," said Phil Richard, chief financial officer of First National Bank of Brookfield. "Drive-thru is good, but it's not the same as face to face."

 

Local grocers step up

But the two businesses many residents have heaped praise on in the past two weeks are the owners and employees of the two locally owned grocery stores, Riverside Foods in Riverside and Tischler Finer Foods in Brookfield.

After a crazy week beginning around March 12, where both stores scrambled to keep shelves stocked after an initial wave of panic buying, things appeared to be settling back down.

Then came word early on March 20 that Gov. J.B. Pritzker was going to issue a statewide stay-at-home order. Another round of panic buying ensued, through Saturday.

"We were really just responding to the hoarding buying," said Riverside Foods co-owner Peter Boutsikakis. "We had been getting two loads weekly, on Tuesday and Thursday. Then Thursday got cut. Not because there wasn't enough inventory, but because there wasn't enough time to pack the trailer."

On Friday before the governor's stay-at-home order, Dennis Tischler, owner of the Brookfield independent market, said the store remained "extremely busy."

"We're still struggling to keep up, but trucks are coming in every day," he said. "The vendors have been fabulous to us. As soon as the shelves are filled up, it's gone. It's been really difficult on our staff."

Both stores have responded by shortening their hours, both to give staff time to recover and because there's not so much after-work traffic at this time. Tischler's went to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, reserving 8-9 a.m. of every day to the elderly and the immune-compromised.

On Sunday, Riverside Foods announced it would be open 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Special shopping hours for the elderly and immune-compromised are on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7:30-8:30 a.m.

Riverside Foods also has expanded its free delivery to seniors in Riverside, Berwyn, Brookfield, Lyons, Stickney and North Riverside.

"We're trying to function like a family here," Boutsikakis said. "We're all on the line here. The support from the community is so overwhelming. It feels beautiful."

Contact:
Email: buphues@wjinc.com Twitter: @RBLandmark

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